15 March 2019

Being a climate hawk has nothing to do with being green

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As schoolchildren once again descend on central London in protest at the lack of action to address climate change, spare a thought for the Telegraph’s Assistant Editor, Christopher Hope, and his beloved Parliament Square lawn.  In one of the more lampooned reactions to last month’s school strike Mr Hope tweeted: “Around 2,000 sixth formers who bunked off school have been protesting in Parliament Square [and] have now wrecked the newly planted grass. And they are worried about climate change? What about the lawn?”

This is a perfect example of the common mistake of conflating climate change with green issues.  Mr Hope is not alone. It’s a particularly easy trap to fall into for journalists, because at nearly every newspaper the issue of climate change is covered by the environment correspondent who will also cover a host of other subjects from ocean plastic and national parks to biodiversity and air pollution.

But climate change is so all encompassing it is a category error to limit it to the realm of environmentalism. It cuts across almost every sector including agriculture and the global food supply, national security and defence, energy, transportation, health, geopolitics, migration and financial markets.  There’s no other issue with the same potency to inflict planetwide disruption.  In January the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Risk Index, which surveys more than a thousand experts, put climate change top of the list.

How we respond to this will fundamentally change the way the world operates. This can be a frightening prospect. But rather than burying our heads in the sand it requires serious people in positions of influence, to address it.  And it really has nothing to do with being at one with nature or ‘green living’.  It’s far too big an issue to be left to the eco-warriors.

What we’re now seeing is the rise of the climate hawks, a term coined by David Roberts of US website Vox.  Being a climate hawk is simply wanting to see a rapid response to climate change, based on a sober and reasoned understanding of the evidence. It has nothing to do with hugging trees or the other baggage that often comes with the pseudo-spiritually of environmentalism. So climate hawks are likely to support nuclear power and carbon pricing, they celebrate the innovation that’s led to renewables and electric cars, they’re not opposed to GM crops or building homes on bits of the green belt and they certainly don’t care about the lawn at Parliament Square.  And climate hawks can be found across society, within insurance companies, the military, religious groups, hedge funds and small businesses.

They understand climate change won’t be solved by self-imposed carbon austerity, or a few people surrendering meat, petrol and long-haul flights.  Now if people want to make those choices then great, all power to them. But the problem is too big to rely on enough people voluntarily breaking out of the carbon constructed world we live in. Rather than getting people to try and swim upstream we need to change the flow, so that living low carbon lifestyles is easier for everyone.

The plastic straw is now an endangered species, with Environment Secretary Michael Gove getting plaudits for cracking down on it following David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series.  Now I hate seeing seabirds suffering from our plastic waste as much as the next person, but straws make up 0.03 per cent of all ocean plastic (46 per cent is abandoned fishing nets). Banning plastic straws might get a green tick but it doesn’t do much for the climate. Same for abattoir CCTV and the ivory sales ban.  These polices may be admirable, even popular, and to a news editor, or CCHQ strategist, they get lumped into the green column, but they are of little use to a climate hawk.

As the first Western leader to raise the issue of climate change at the UN General Assembly, it’s fair to consider Margaret Thatcher one of the earliest climate hawks. After all, she was much prouder of being the first Prime Minister with a science degree than being the first woman to hold the office. In her 1989 speech she saw the problem was more than a green issue. She told the UN assembly that climate change “could alter the way we live in the most fundamental way of all. That prospect is a new factor in human affairs.”

Britain has a good story to tell on decarbonisation. Phasing coal out of the energy mix and driving down the cost of renewables through the Government’s competitive auctions is why Britain has cut its emissions so effectively. But as Daniel Hannan acknowledged in The Sun last week, the striking schoolchildren have a “legitimate argument” when they say governments are failing to do enough.

These children will likely grow up to be climate hawks. Their concern is not rooted in the luxury of middle-class environmentalism, but in the hard reality that climate change will affect their lives in very tangible ways.  And until the world is on track to deal with it, they are unlikely to shut up about it.

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Joe Ware is a journalist and writer working in the field of international development.